One of the most positive gains farming has made over the last decade has been its partnership with another of our signature industries: tourism.
To get a better understanding of just how much agritourism has grown during that time, consider that it accounted for about $1 million in income in 2001, but $3.2 million by 2007.
September in Kentucky is Agritourism Month, which is appropriate since the fall festival season is the most popular time of year for farms that open their doors to the public.
An agritourism Web site maintained by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture — www.kentuckyfarmsarefun.com — shows that there are more than 300 of these farms across the state, which is up from 260 just several years ago.
The driving force behind that growth is a tremendous increase in wineries, which have gone from four in 2003 to 52 this year, and more than 450 acres devoted to wine grapes.
Not surprisingly, Kentucky’s Ag Development Board has been supportive of the agritourism trend. Using the tobacco settlement money the General Assembly authorized for farming, it has approved more than $1.7 million for more than three dozen projects this decade.
Working hand-in-hand with agritourism is the Kentucky Proud program, an increasingly popular brand that lets customers know a product is produced within the Commonwealth. These items range from apple cider to candy, and from Christmas trees to farm equipment.
To help get the word out further, the Department of Agriculture has begun a Restaurant Rewards program to give dining establishments an incentive to buy Kentucky Proud products and make customers aware of what exactly they are eating.
In addition to agritourism, another diverse area of growth for farmers can be found in the biofuels industry. Kentucky has already seen a lot of progress in the production of ethanol and biodiesel, but there has been a greater push to have farms be even more involved.
Governor Beshear put a renewed focus on this area in August when he formed a new task force on the subject. Its members are taking an especially close look at non-food sources that could complement corn and soybeans as a fuel source. That includes switchgrass, which can be grown with little oversight on land not suitable for crops, and even algae.
Last week, Governor Beshear announced that more than $2 million in federal stimulus funds would be directed toward these alternative energy sources as well as programs that make farms more energy efficient.
In the late 1990s, as farmers began adjusting to the end of the tobacco quota system, agriculture was at a true crossroads in Kentucky. The key to survival for many was to diversify into areas that had not drawn much interest before. With farming continuing to enjoy record years in sales, it is becomingly increasingly clear that this industry’s best days are still in front of it.
As always, if you have any ideas about these or other state-government subjects, don’t hesitate to contact me.
State Representative Rick Rand